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The Other Side of the World

The sun was at its highest when my father and I reached the isolated beach. A small woman sat alone on a piece of driftwood, perfecting the mid-day Indonesian art of doing absolutely nothing. She looked as though she had been sitting there her entire life, staring out at the ocean and the volcanoes beyond Bunaken Island.

“Selamat sore, Abigail,” my father said, waving. The woman nodded.

Behind her was the most primitive house I had seen ever seen: Its roof made of thatched palm leaves, its sides of sagging palm bark, the old shack looked as though a castaway had desperately thrown it together, plopping it down amid a tangle of rainforest.

“Is Silas in the ocean?” my dad asked.

The woman nodded again, her eyes smiling this time. I guessed she was Silas’ wife.

Hours ago, we had woken early to go snorkeling, rolling out of our hostel beds and stepping into the soft-lit morning. We had sat with the other travelers in the open-air eating area, picking at our rice and fried eggs.

I felt like I should talk to them. I felt like I should have stayed up late with the flirty Swedish girl, getting drunk and swooning over the tall, blond German as he played guitar. But I was uncomfortable with it all. These young travelers—ambling out into the morning, tan and careless in sarongs—felt more foreign to me than my father’s Indonesian wife.

“After snorkeling, we’ll visit Silas on the other side of the island,” my dad said, putting down his fork.

Three hours later, we ended up here in a small fishing boat a few miles away from the hostel, watching Silas continually emerge from the water and go back down again. Finally, he stood up, dripping in a black shirt.

“I got one!” he yelled. A mess of tentacles dangled from the hook in his hand.

Silas had been out spear-fishing for octopus when my father stumbled on this beach a few years back, and every visit since, this was where my father found him—in the water, searching for these coveted creatures that went for a high price.

He had a penchant for talking like few Indonesians I’d met. While his wife sat beside him, he told us how few octopus were hiding in the coral these days. He talked of his Sunday walks through the rain forest to attend church in the nearby village, about his daughter who had left them to live there. Water, he said, came rushing in their house every time it rained.

My father asked if he ever considered moving into the village.

“I’ve spent my entire life here,” he said plainly, shaking his head. “My father built this house.” Chickens circled around his feet.

I thought of the young travelers back at the hostel, the girls laughing in the hammocks, the boys lining up empty beers. I had come to the other side of the island, but it felt like the other side of the world.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition. You can visit HomeAway Holiday-Rentals here.

Does this piece resonate with you? Have you had experiences like this? I’d love to hear about them!


A Good Day for Little Publications and Hopeful Reporters

I’m nursing a wrist injury, so I must keep this short, unfortunately:

I regularly contribute to a weekly paper here in Annapolis, MD, and I recently wrote a piece for them about PRS guitars (a local, but world famous company that handcrafts guitars), and how federal stimulus money is coming to its rescue.

Word on the street is the little weekly made it to the white house, and everyone there has been circulating the story around, totally digging it.

Lovely news that I just wanted to share. Wish I could write more.

J-School: A Cause for Celebration and Neurotic Questioning

I came home last night to an acceptance letter — to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. And I was floored.

I felt high on the fumes of giddy excitement, but also just…strange.  I didn’t go the straight arrow route of trying to become a journalist. I was always a a poet, a dreamy kid who sort of floated through life. I barely knew what was going on outside of my head.

But at some point along the path of my 20s, I changed — dramatically. I am still a poet and a fiction writer, but I am now fascinated by journalism, in love with reporting, and feel that, if done well and with deep and real care, journalism can affect the course of the human story . It doesn’t let us ignore others’ narratives to simplify our own. It challenges not just the way we think, but the way we live. It makes what’s going on thousands of miles away more urgent than the difficulties of our day.  I dig it. (And in terms of creative writing, it gives you worlds more to write about that the halls of MFA academia ever will.)

So after freelancing for a year, I decided to apply to Columbia, thinking it was a real long shot, thinking the liberal elite, “best-j-school-around” would see that I was smart and had potential, but that I just wasn’t the right “fit,” that I hadn’t done all the right things — run a school newspaper, intern somewhere important, devote the entire trajectory of my life from the age of 6 to journalism. I’m a waitress. I don’t own a car or television. I can’t seem to get the money together to get a decent haircut. I grew up in a family living on the fringe, moving from eviction letter to eviction letter. I live more responsibly than that now, but I am still on that fringe. I’m used to it.

But I am also tired of it. Everyday I wake up dreading having to go the restaurant. I am constantly feeling like I’d give anything for more time to write — and report.

So I applied to Columbia on a lark.

I am thrilled. Very thrilled. I know I want this. But I’m also conflicted. Is it worth it to accrue more debt? Is it silly to pursue journalism right now, given the state of things? Will this screw any future of more travel, or will it open up more opportunities? Should I just keep freelancing and waitressing until something breaks for me? I used to jump into things unthinkingly when I was younger. Let me tell you, I’m a lot more cautious these days. Even afraid.

I’m largely self-taught, so the idea of learning from a veteran New York Times reporter is inspiring. The dream of getting to spend the majority of my time writing and reporting is incredible, unfathomable. But more than anything, Columbia just seems like a door-opener — to a world I’ve always only peered into. From a huge distance. Hell, I don’t even live on the outskirts.

I’m making no decisions until I see that aid letter in April. But I’m still gonna celebrate!

What does everyone think? Please weigh in!

The Stories that Homes Tell, Real or Imagined

When I was 20 and living in New York City, I dated a man whose mother was a very wealthy art dealer. She owned a vacation home in Long Island, a nineteenth century, wrap around porch house that, more than the short-lived relationship, sticks with me — its slate colored floors, its high ceilings, its antique finishing, its spare, elegant, protestant charm.

We visited it most in autumn, and what I remember vividly about each visit are the bike rides, the shafts of lights coming through all those leaves, the big, old houses moving slowly past us like film stills. And the conversations that ensued:

“It’s quiet here.”

“I know. I like it.”

“Maybe we could leave the city.”

“You think?”

“What about this yellow one?”

“Yeah, I like it.” And I’d smile, knowing that, for me, it was a fantasy. He was older, wanted to settle down, buy a house. I was 20, and imagining –perhaps irresponsibly—what that would be like.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is look at houses, to walk aimlessly through an anonymous neighborhood, surveying not so much the people in their homes, but the spaces themselves. In my head, I empty them out, ready for fantasy’s taking. Then I arrange a life for myself there.

I admit, it’s a strange activity for a traveler — especially for one who believes that she’ll probably never own a home, who shies away from domestic nesting rituals, and who has never lived in one apartment or house longer than two years.

Or maybe not. I wonder if, in all my travels and moving, that’s what I’m secretly hoping to hit upon — the right house, in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe it is just one aspect of a long-term traveler’s deepest impulse, the impulse to understand what it would be to live in a place, to know its underbelly, its routine, its annoyances, its quirks of character. Part of that, for sure, is about the fantasy — the need to imagine yourself out of the tedium of your own life, the thirst I felt at 20 for the space and freedom my broke, cramped lived in New York couldn’t give me.

But aside from the fantasy is the actual story. What I love about neighborhoods is the quiet histories they tell. I spent a good deal of my recent trip to Newport Beach, CA just walking through neighborhoods, guided by my friend who has spent most of her life there.

There’s an odd, disembodied feeling to being in Southern California — the wide, perfectly paved expressways, the empty sidewalks, the weather’s sameness. Like you’re floating, with eerie ease, atop a mirage of a world.

What makes that feeling even more intense is the strange way the new houses and developments there are trying to trump the unique landscape, trying, with their three-lot-five-house-wide-stucco-imitation-ranch-style-BRIGHT-color -choices to say: Land? What land? Don’t look at those silly palm trees and crystal water. Don’t smell the gardenias that waft through the air everywhere you go. Look at me. Me is what Southern California is all about.

As Nouveau Riche as this all is, this typically Californian in-with-the-new, out-with-the-tasteful tells us more about the history of place than it means to. As it always does. There, sitting next to a modest, pale blue one story, that lot-swallowing monstrosity tells us a lot. Tells us about the way the beach town used to be, and where it’s going. Tells us how the people’s lives, values, and desires have changed. And that little beach house, just built in the 70s actually inspires nostalgia, a hankering for a quieter, more nuanced time that maybe never existed. But it at least creates the vision of history, and the sense of loss that goes along with it.

Maybe it’s just this impulse towards story. The strange need to take details and make them into a narrative, imagined or real. A kind of travel of its own.

New Piece: The Shore Left Behind

Take a look at my new little piece on Matador Life — Point Reyes: The Shore Left Behind

It’s about home, and the surprising way certain landscapes can set anchor in us, pulling at us after we’ve left them behind.

Uncertain Grace

I feel short of words today.  So I am re-posting a  kind of travel poem from my Matador Travel blog — about leaving Indonesia, and my father who lives there. Life has been so hectic lately, I feel a bit lost and crowded in the chaos. Poetry always brings me back to a rare kind of silence. It grounds me when I am drifting.  I hope, if only a little, I can do that for others. There’s no greater goal for me, really.

Uncertain Grace

to my father

The pain of not seeing you will grow less.
I have learned that much since you left—
that first I will forget how your last clutch stopped my breath.
Next, I will lose your posture stooped with age.
Then, some time after, as I did before,
I will start to forget your face—
your strong nose, thick mouth,
the sad resignation of your eyes.

I am thinking about this,
about the quiet and deadly machine of time
as I watch a Balinese girl
dance around an altar of light.
The beauty of her face
is not in her features but her gaze,
lowered in something quieter than fear,
the most vulnerable offering—
the offering of uncertain grace.

I wonder is she has practiced this,
learned the part of coy Sinta,
or if every night she finds again
the dread of being watched,
if in the faces of these tourists
she can see her own fragility, how terrifying it is.

As I watch her body move,
I recall leaving your home, recognizing
in your eyes that ancient sorrow
that drove you so far to this place.
I could swear that you saw this too,
could swear you felt knee-weak with fault
as this thought traveled through me
and took seed in you—

What will not grow dim,
what will only sharpen
is the image of your pain,
how you will sit hunched over your computer
alone in an alien country
and wonder why I have not written,
why my feet are not padding across your tile,
my hands are not busy cutting fruit at the table.
You will wonder why my coming and
going has startled you to the silence of your life.
You will wonder just how much you gave up.

Snow, Amnesia, and the Travel of Seasons

Written on a plane from Chicago to Orange County

It is night, and the city lights that come into view from time to time are a comfort. On my flight out of DC earlier, it was the open expanses that calmed me — the perfectly etched farm land, the snow capped mountains. Those remote landscapes were the only ones to help quiet that flying panic that takes hold when we hit some bad turbulence. Or hell, any real turbulence. I don’t know where this feeling came from – I used to love flying (as much as anyone can love being confined to a small, cramped seat for six hours straight.) And then, one day, it  hit me:

We are flying in a giant tube of toothpaste through the sky. Why are we even remotely okay with this?

I do it anyway. The summer before last I flew eleven different times – most of it on dodgy Indonesian aircraft that has been banned from the EU. Because what is life without chances? It would not include seventy degree weather, a two minute walk to the beach, and one of my best friends – which is precisely where, after a day and a half of snow storm-induced delays, I am finally headed.

I grew up in San Francisco, so the snow is still a marvel to me. And this storm did not disappoint. But the charm, at least for this winter, has worn off a little. It could be the bad bout of pnuemonia I dealt with (whose effects just seem to linger), or it could simply be the sheer weight of it, the relentless wind, the lack of sunlight, the tension you tend to hold in your body from bracing it against the cold day in and day out. It brings to mind those awful days in New York City, when the wind tunnels are so harsh and swift you feel as if the world is hitting you. People are rushing, pushing against each other, everyone’s brow set in a hard, straight line. The train floors are covered in dirt and melted ice, and everyone is packed together, scowling. These are the moments I’d look around and think: A city of beautiful people? I better get out of here before I start looking like this.

Winter is hard on people. And so, in the depths of it, I wonder now, just fleetingly, what it would be like to live in a place where the temperature rarely drops below 60 degrees. Would I be happier? More functional? Life would certainly have a greater ease. And, I think, in a way I’d be more apt to live in the present, never longing for the seasons of the future or the past.

But what has tied me to the east coast of the United States for so long is the seasons,  their inevitable coming and going. They are incredibly defining, and definition, for me, is what gives life color –  brings it alive and into focus. So many of my memories – many of them solitary – are inextricably bound to the seasons: leaving  a strange apartment in Brooklyn, only to find the first, soft snow that won’t stick, emerging into the lush Blue Ridge Mountains on the first true spring day, lazily moving along DC’s Tidal Basin, watching the cherry blossoms fall delicately on a little girl’s head. All of these imprinted, because they are the first vivid sights. And they are so vivid because seasons come so suddenly.

Perhaps that is what my writer friend who I am going to see means when she talks about the amnesia of living in Southern California – everything is so languidly the same. It has a fogging effect. Even growing up in San Francisco, I recall that strange, unnamable feeling – a lack of defintion.  No newness to startle you. Like we were all living in maple syrup.

As Bill Hicks said: “What are you, a fucking lizard? Only reptiles feel that way about this kind of weather. I’m a mammal, I can afford coats, scarves, cappuccino and rosy cheeked women.”

Seasons are their own kind of travel – they keep you moving, sharp, and awake. And I think that is why I have held so fast to them. Interestingly enough, though, the more I travel, the less I seem to need these powerful, defining seaons. So one day, I may just make my base a hot, sunny place. Because god, these next few days are going to feel good.

About Simone Gorrindo

Simone Gorrindo is a freelance journalist, poet, and travel writer who can't stay put.


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